Since its independence from Indonesia some dozen years ago, Timor Leste has proved to be less a nation state than a tangle of family relationships, in which one particularly colourful minister of the interior ran his office like ‘a cross between a baronial court and Tony Soprano’s back office’. Internal conflict in 2006 was a mess: army factions were at violent odds, as were police factions, and both fought each other. ‘If this sounds confusing, it was.’
An air of magical realism added to the turmoil: one prominent military policeman, despatched to quell rebels, became their leader; after being imprisoned, he escaped by magical means and acquired a girlfriend ‘whose siren beauty… turned the head of every senior politician in the country’. Another major player, accused of murder, rape, extortion and myriad other war crimes, assured Peake that he had been forgiven his sins: he stood trial for them in a dream, ‘probably sanctified by a higher authority’.
Peake has an ear for a phrase, describing a coffee shop where the Timorese elite hang out – not so many years since they were prowling in armed groups around city streets – as ‘shrouded in cigarette smoke, intrigues and dodgy deals’. His fondness for this fledgling nation, both brand new and shackled by history, is palpable throughout.
BELOVED LAND: Stories, Struggles and Secrets from Timor-Leste by Gordon Peake, Scribe, £14.99